Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela remains symbol of hope at home

Nelson Mandela. He was admitted to a military hospital following a lung infection. [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]


Taboo and reality have clashed as the world anxiously watches former South African President and world icon Nelson Mandela battle his latest health scare.

Fearful of losing a man they see as the glue that holds together and inspires their fragile society, South Africans are struggling to accept the mortality of the man even as they ask God to give him a long life.

Some have expressed anger over the way the media has covered his hospitalisation, and in particular castigated those who have breached the taboo subject of Mandela’s possible death.

“It’s an extraordinary relationship, an impossible love,” concluded a BBC report on South African’s love for their inspirational leader, now in the twilight of his life.

The media has camped at One Military Hospital in the capital Pretoria where Mandela has been admitted since June 8 for treatment of a recurring lung infection.

This is one in a series of health scares that have blighted the sunset years of the anti-apartheid icon, but for the first time, the South African presidency described his illness as serious.

For an expectant world, it marked a departure from the previous hospitalisations and quite understandably, many drew the conclusion that the end for the grand old man of Africa was nigh. However some residents have politely brushed aside questions that anticipate his death, pointing to a strongly held cultural taboo against discussing the fate of a sick person.

“To us, it suggests that we want this person to die,” Nokuzola Tetani, a manager at the Nelson Mandela Youth and Heritage Center told AFP.  “We are rural people. The manner in which we deal with pain may not be visible.”

Mandela, 94, is revered worldwide for his dedication to the freedom of South Africans. He spent 27 years in prison for leading the fight against the minority white regime in South Africa.

Over the past few months, Mandela has been hospitalised for respiratory problems linked to tuberculosis he contracted during his captivity.

But the idea of his death remains one that most South Africans would rather not talk about it openly, even though deep down in their hearts they acknowledge the inevitability of his demise.

This is how a BBC reporter put the mood in the country: At dinner tables, South Africans talk about the Nobel laureate’s need to rest, but none utter the phrase that could change it all: “Siyakukhulula tata” — Xhosa for, “We release you, father”.

According to Isintu — traditional South African culture — the very sick do not die unless the family “releases” them spiritually — only then will they be at peace in surrendering to death.

Culturally, this practice is seen as “permission” to die and this permission needs to be given by the family; it is re-assurance from loved ones that they will be fine, said the BBC article.

The reaction from his family, close friends and the South African nation is to go on with life like normal. Mandela’s foundation has vowed to press ahead with the upcoming 95th birthday on July 18.

While the idea of Mandela’s death remains a taboo to most South Africans, the local media has been less inhibited in discussing the possibility of his death.